WWII vet from Orland Park, wounded twice in battle, receives France’s highest honor
By Mike Nolan firstname.lastname@example.org November 9, 2012 4:42PM
Shirley Latham, left, from Jackson, TN, surprises her brother, Ray Waller, as he arrived at the Orland Park Civic Center to receive his French Legion of Honor medal in Orland Park, IL on Friday November 9, 2012. Waller, a WWII vet who received the Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart, was awarded the medal by Graham Paul, Consul General from the French Consulate. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 12, 2012 6:11AM
It was the “Ides of March” in 1945, and Ray Waller, a 20-year-old Army medic from Tennessee was tending to men in his unit who’d been wounded after they’d found themselves in the middle of a minefield near the town of Nancy in France.
“I must have been standing on it,” the 87-year-old Waller, now living in Orland Park, recalled on Friday. “It was pitch dark.”
Although he didn’t realize it, he was on top of a mine. Trying to help a wounded buddy, Waller apparently shifted his weight, causing the mine to detonate.
“It blowed me over,” Waller said.
Wounded twice in World War II, Waller received the Bronze Star, Silver Star, Purple Heart with oak leaf clusters and a slew of other medals. On Friday, with his family gathered in the Orland Park Civic Center, Waller was presented with the French Legion of Honor for his role in helping liberate the country.
The medal makes Waller a “Chevalier,” essentially a knight in the eyes of the French government. His family had petitioned the French ambassador in March to consider recommending Waller for the medal, and the family learned in August he’d receive the award, created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.
It is “the highest honor France can bestow,” Graham Paul, France’s consul general in Chicago, said in presenting the medal to Waller.
“You served us and we will never forget you,” Paul said, referring to Waller and all U.S. soldiers who fought in France. “To the French people, you are heroes.”
Lots of people, including Waller’s oldest son and a former president who sent a congratulatory letter, used the word “hero” to describe what Waller did. A humble Waller said he might have had several medals pinned to his chest, but he was no hero.
“That’s one thing I never was,” he said. “I was doing my job.”
Wounded twice in the war
Waller grew up in Jackson, Tenn., and never went to school beyond seventh grade. When he was 17, Waller lied about his age to get a job with the Illinois Central Railroad. Because his job was deemed vital to the nation, Waller could have avoided serving in the war, his family said, but he enlisted in the Army on his 18th birthday.
He was assigned to the 36th Infantry Division out of Texas, which later named him an “honorary Texan,” hence the letters of congratulation from two former presidents who hail from the state, both named Bush, which were read after Friday’s medal presentation. Waller was wearing a string tie and a cowboy hat with his 36th Infantry Division pin on it.
Waller’s unit landed in southern France in August 1944, two months after the D-Day invasion, and he was first wounded in December of that year. He later received training as a medic, which proved to be valuable when members of his unit unwittingly wandered into the minefield.
As he crawled on his belly feeling for trip wires and checking on the condition of the men in his platoon, the unit was subjected to withering machine gun and mortar fire being unleashed by German troops, according to a letter accompanying Waller’s Silver Star.
Waller lost the toes on his left foot in the mine explosion, and he spent nearly two years in the hospital recovering. He needed a crutch to help him walk after he was released.
Waller moved his family to Orland Park in 1964, and five of his six children live in the Chicago area. He and his wife, Nell, have been married for 62 years, and Waller turns 88 in January.
His wife, who grew up in Jackson, said her husband has always been a humble man of simple needs, which is what attracted her to him in the first place.
“He was nice, not a showoff,” she said.
Although he could have avoided the draft, “he did it (enlisted) because he wanted to,” she said.
His oldest son, Dan, an attorney in Dallas, said during the ceremony that he and his siblings spent “many evenings listening to the stories my father told” about his time overseas, and that “it was apparent to us he was a hero.”
Afterward, the younger Waller said his father bristled at the term.
“He always made it very clear he was just doing his duty,” Waller said. “There were many heroes who didn’t make it back.”